The Tokusatsu Entertainment Genre that Godzilla Spawned

Godzilla’s Analog Mayhem and the Japanese Special Effects Tradition


The 1954 film Godzilla, with its brilliant combination of miniature sets and costumed actors, gave birth to a whole new genre, called tokusatsu (literally “special filming”). This distinctive style, pioneered by Tsuburaya Eiji, went on to become hugely influential in Japan and overseas, leading to many other memorable creations, including the TV show Ultraman. Hikawa Ryūsuke looks at the birth and development of this genre.

Tokusatsu’s Global Fans

The tokusatsu genre of movies and TV series, which relies on tangible “analog” special effects, is one of the best-loved elements of Japanese pop culture. The genre involves creatively filming highly detailed real objects, such as miniature sets and actors dressed in monster suits, to convincingly portray scenes of gigantic monsters in actual cityscapes.

The term tokusatsu is short for tokushu satsuei, which literally means “special filming.” At present, the term basically designates two different things:

(1) A technique used to film images of things or objects that are normally difficult to film.
(2) The movie or TV-series genre that relies heavily on “special filming” techniques, as seen in such works as Godzilla or Ultraman.

Starting around the mid-1990s, creators made less use of the traditional techniques pertaining to tokusatsu in that first sense, such as the use of miniature objects, as computer graphics and other types of digital technologies became cheaper and more sophisticated. The use of miniatures has also become limited for the second type of tokusatsu, which now centers mostly on TV shows featuring life-size heroes like Kamen Rider or Super Sentai.

There have been 28 movies featuring the monster Godzilla produced in Japan, but no new film has been released since Godzilla: Final Wars was on the big screen 10 years ago. And although there are still new works being made that feature the famous monsters and familiar heroes of the Ultraman series, it has become rare to see scenes of city destruction filmed with the use of miniatures.

The quintessential tokusatsu scenes, depicting epic battles between enormous-looking monsters and heroes, are becoming a rarity in Japan. Meanwhile, though, the respect overseas for the tokusatsu genre is on the rise. In 2013, the US film Pacific Rim featured giant robots clashing with monsters. And in May 2014, Hollywood released a new Godzilla movie that has become a box-office hit worldwide. (The film will be released in Japan on July 25.) Both films spent lavishly on computer graphics to create scenes of monsters wreaking havoc on people’s lives, similar to the images that Japanese films used to be known for.

The 2014 Hollywood film Godzilla will be released in Japan on July 25. (Photograph courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. & Legendary Pictures Productions LLC.)

As a way of bridging the gap between these latest films and what came before, I’d like to take a look here at the cultural aspects of Japan’s tokusatsu tradition.

The Heyday of Tokusatsu and Anime

From around 1954 to 1970, which overlapped with Japan’s extended period of high economic growth, special-effects director Tsuburaya Eiji helped create a number of tokusatsu films that were shown outside of Japan to global acclaim. These films also inspired children in various countries who would go on to become visual creators themselves as adults.

That era, stretching from the release of the first Godzilla movie in 1954 up to Tsuburaya’s death in 1970, could be called the first “golden age” of tokusatsu. And up to the latter half of the 1970s, tokusatsu was on equal footing with anime in the realm of visual creations geared to kids, with both genres progressing through a process of cross-pollination. 

But today tokusatsu, unlike anime, is not included as one of the categories for the Japan Media Arts Festival. This seems to reflect how the prestige of the tokusatsu genre has faded while that of anime has been on the rise. Overseas, however, there are those who have appropriately grasped the close relationship between the two genres and their respective characteristics, and so I think it is necessary here for me to look at this as well.

Made-in-Japan animation has become familiar to viewers around the world, who refer to it using the Japanese term “anime.” The growth of anime can be traced back to 1963, when Tezuka Osamu, known as the “god of manga,” released a TV series through his Mushi Production company that adapted his own famous manga character, Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy). Unlike the full animation of Western Europe, the animation for this series used many freeze-frames, incorporating the concept of omission and exaggeration. By coming up with ways to limit the number of images used per second, Tezuka developed his own style of “limited animation,” making it possible to produce a 30-minute animated TV program every week.

Similarly, the term tokusatsu, which basically means “visual effects,” has taken on its own new meaning. It is an example of how Japan, as an island country with limited resources, has given its own twist to techniques and cultural elements originating overseas and come up with innovative ways to make those things more compact and efficient—before then sending those readaptations back out into the world. That approach is at the basis of both anime and tokusatsu.

Necessity Is the “Monster” of Invention

So what innovations did Japan bring to the realm of visual effects to forge the tokusatsu style? The roots of its innovations can be traced back to the original 1954 Godzilla movie, the box-office smash produced by the Tōhō film company. The period from initial planning to the actual release of the film was only six months. Since Tsuburaya, who was in charge of special effects, had only this short period of time to film everything he could not rely on the time-consuming “stop-motion animation” technique that had been the standard technique overseas for producing the monster movies of the 1930s. Instead, he adopted the method of creating a miniature set of Tokyo and having an actor dressed up in a Godzilla costume play the role of the monster.

The 1954 movie Godzilla, whose special effects were created by Tsuburaya Eiji, is winning new fans thanks to a digitally remastered version of the film released in 2014 to mark its 60th anniversary. (Photograph courtesy of Tōhō Co. Ltd.)

There were concerns that the film might look cheap because of this approach, but in fact using the 100-kilogram-plus Godzilla suit gave a weighty presence to the monster and the rough plastic skin of the monster was also rich in texture. The film also made use of hand-held puppet versions of Godzilla for scenes where the monster needed to open its mouth or use facial expressions, as well as another version of Godzilla whose lower-half only was filmed for scenes where the monster crushes city buildings. This way of “putting the right monster in the right scene” brought the image to life and created an unprecedented sort of realism that made viewers almost think they were viewing a living creature on the screen. 

Another scene from the digitally remastered Godzilla released in 2014. (Photograph courtesy of Tōhō Co. Ltd.)

A film-processing technique called “optical compositing” was used for the movie, integrating the images of Godzilla taken in the studio with those of people fleeing from the monster, thus transporting viewers into the fictional world. Scenes where Godzilla shoots a heat ray from its mouth were created using animation techniques to draw the monster’s glowing dorsal fin and the beam of light. This effectively accentuated the terrifying physical presence of the giant dinosaur-like creature. 

Overseas, there has been a strong tendency toward the depiction of realistic creatures in movies, whether it is the return of the dinosaurs or wild animals that become mammoth in size. This contrasts significantly with the monsters in Japanese movies like Godzilla, which have paranormal powers such as the ability to shoot a laser beam or heat ray, resulting from scientific causes. The image of these monsters took shape through careful orchestration that involved tangibly bringing the fantasy world of the creatures to life through the use of monster suits and miniature sets, and piling up innovative techniques such as combining an array of tokusatsu methods and compositions. The gap that arises from using realistic elements to depict imaginary creatures serves as a catalyst that stimulates the audience’s imagination and creates an unparalleled sense of awe and surprise. This gets to the heart of the conception of Japanese tokusatsu and of its charms. 

Tokusatsu Genre Spreads to Television

After Godzilla became a hit in 1954, the following year the movie Gojira no gyakushū (Godzilla Raids Again) was produced, with Tsuburaya given the title of the film’s “special effects director.” Tsuburaya, who became known as “the god of tokusatsu,” was a hero for kids at the time. A new way of enjoying movies emerged, where people went to movie theaters expressly to see the tokusatsu effects and to see that genre’s distinctive character, Godzilla.

The cast of monster characters expanded to include Rodan, a rapid-flying bird resembling a pteranodon; Mothra, a giant caterpillar from a deserted island in the South Sea that transformed itself into a moth in Tokyo after forming its cocoon in the ruins of the Tokyo Tower; and King Ghidorah, a three-headed flying gold dragon In addition to these sorts of monsters, tokusatsu works feature an array of other characters, such as human beings who can transform themselves into a gas or a liquid, and address a variety of themes, such as the threat of all-out nuclear war. Other production companies began to get involved in tokusatsu films, to the point where it developed into a major genre.

The tokusatsu genre moved on from film to the realm of television, which became the main media form. In 1966, three years after Astro Boy made its television debut, Tsuburuya Productions, a company created by that “divine” tokusatsu master Tsuburaya Eiji, released the supernatural tokusatsu TV series Ultra Q. The show immediately became a huge hit. This success overturned the fixed idea people in the industry had previously had that full-on tokusatsu effects were too expensive and time-consuming to be feasible for a TV series. This sparked a “monster boom” on TV, as each channel began producing its own tokusatsu programs.

That huge breakthrough made by the tokusatsu pioneer Tsuburaya led to major progress in the subsequent years. This trajectory was similar in many respects to how Astro Boy opened the way for anime series on television. Moreover, both the character Astro Boy and Godzilla are intrinsically linked to atomic power and an age of scientific technology. As a result of developing in such close connection to Japan’s era of extended economic growth, the country’s anime and tokusatsu genres could blossom as a visual culture that has exerted a significant influence worldwide.

Ultraman Pioneers a New Format

Following up on the success of Ultra Q, Tsuburaya Productions released the new TV series Ultraman six months later. Every week on the show a new monster appeared to threaten the planet. The hero of the show, who battle these villains, is a member of a special police force with the ability to transform himself into a giant humanoid from outer space.

The superhuman, justice-seeking Ultraman hero, designed in a way that combines elements of rockets and robots, became a symbol of the scientific know-how that sustained Japan’s economic growth of the time. It’s worth noting that, visually, the hero is a hybrid, with a silver body to suggest that scientific aspect, interspersed with bands of red to denote his human quality.

Ultraman’s new “monster of the week” format became a model for subsequent TV shows geared to kids. For instance, 1972 saw the debut of Mazinger Z, a robot anime centered on an enormous super robot of the same name that is ridden in and operated by the show’s hero, who does battle with evil mechanical monsters. The 1970s saw a string of anime shows featuring giant robots, culminating in the huge hit Mobile Suit Gundam, first broadcast in 1979.

Another similar sort of show that debuted more recently, in 1995, is the highly successful Neon Genesis Evangelion, featuring enormous heroes like those in Ultraman, dressed in armor similar to that used in Mazinger Z. The show, with its combination of tokusatsu-style heroes and giant robots, marked the culmination of the genre’s distinctive culture.

As the tokusatsu culture created by the first Godzilla movie thus came to exert a huge influence on anime culture as well, there was a ripple effect that created many new characters, leading to great progress. Meanwhile, though, the technique of using miniatures and other objects to bring a fantasy world to life began to decline as computer graphics came to the fore.

But by reconsidering the relationship between anime and tokusatsu, and the course of their historical development, new breakthroughs that only Japan can bring to the world will no doubt come into view in the future—much like the astounding and unparalleled images the country’s tokusatsu genre has brought to the world up to now. There is still room for the genre to develop once younger creators learn from its imaginative power and draw on the many innovative techniques that once had a worldwide impact.

Now that the world is again paying respect to the original Godzilla film, that tokusatsu masterpiece, it seems an ideal time to forge new progress in this distinctive realm of Japanese visual culture and to take a fresh look at the true value of the tokusatsu genre.

(Originally written in Japanese on June 16, 2014.)

anime Astro Boy film entertainment Tokusatsu visual effects Godzilla Tsuburaya Eiji Ultraman Evangelion